Listening to tales told by his blacksmith grandfather in the semi-darkness of his fire-lit forge, Alan Garner absorbed the Cheshire folklore that he then transformed into a classic work of fiction – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen.
Inspired by Garner’s story, archaeologists have recently begun to unravel the truth behind the legends of Alderley Edge, as Chris Catling reports.
Alan Garner went up to Oxford to read Classics, but he was restless and decided that formal academic study was not for him – instead he wanted to write. His tutor struck a gentleman’s agreement: ‘go away,’ he said, ‘and find out if you have an original mind; and if you discover that you have not, come back and devote your life to discovering those that had.’
Those parting words left the door open for Alan’s return, but he never needed to retread the Oxford road. On 10 October 1959, he received a letter from William Collins, the publisher, accepting his first novel – The Weirdstone of Brisingamen. Fifty years on he is acknowledged to be, in the words of Philip Pullman (who ought to know), ‘one of the very greatest writers of books that children read’ (Pullman and Garner share a dislike of the limitations implied by the term ‘books for children’).
Fantasy and reality
For all its apparent fantasy, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen contains much literal description of the landscape in which Garner grew up. Alderley Edge, the setting for the novel, is a prominent sandstone ridge that rises dramatically out of the Cheshire plain, some 12 miles south of Manchester. Now largely owned by the National Trust, it is a place of ferns and beech woodland, ditches, banks and ancient boundary stones, of springs and tumbling waterfalls. Flint tools left by Mesolithic foragers erode out of sandy banks. Rocky plateaux, where Armada warning beacons were once lit, now serve as picnic spots with views that stretch across mile after mile of dairy pasture to the flanks of the Pennines. But just as real are the ‘hermit’s caves’ dug in to sandstone cliffs beneath twisted tree roots and the Druid Stones, rough monoliths set in a circle in the midst of the woods. Here, too, is the massive boulder known as the Golden Stone, marking the meeting point of three ancient boundaries, and the overhanging cliffs carved with the faces of bearded wizards – all of which play their role in Garner’s atmospheric novel.
Also very real are the numerous clefts, ravines and fissures in the mineral rich sandstone from which the Edge is composed, rocky portals that lead into the bowels of the earth. For underneath the sunlit world of Alderley Edge is another dark world of claustrophobic tunnels and shafts, of vast caverns and underground pools – the nether world of Fundindelve and Earldelving through which Colin and Susan, the heroes of Garner’s novel, crawl and struggle as they desperately seek to escape from Nastrond’s evil minions, the ‘maggot breed of Ymir’.
The Brynlow shovel
The existence of this subterranean world was no secret to local people in the 19th century: the extraction and processing of copper and cobalt from mines beneath Alderley Edge provided many of them with employment. But few archaeologists took an interest in these mines when Alan was writing his novel in the late 1950s, and nothing better illustrates this indifference than the story of the Brynlow shovel.
This enigmatic piece of ancient wood hung from a nail in what Alan Garner calls the ‘Gothic hell-hole’ of the classroom that was his infants’ school. In his last term at Manchester Grammar School, Alan saw the same object illustrated in a book he was reading – Jottings of some Geological, Archaeological, Botanical, Ornithological and Zoological Rambles around Macclesfield (1878). The author, Dr J D Sainter, said that it had been found among ‘old diggings’ among a heap of broken hammer stones.
Back to his infant’s school raced the 19-year-old Garner, where he enlisted the help of the head teacher in searching for the paddle-shaped piece of wood – eventually found in the furthest recesses of the narrow space under the stage in the school assembly hall under a pile of coconut matting and high-jump posts.
‘Finders keepers,’ said the formidable but generous head teacher, and Alan was allowed to carry the trophy home. Help in identifying and dating the find was less forthcoming, however. Turning up at the Manchester Museum, he was told that ‘no-one was available’ to assist him; the British Museum told him it was a ‘Tudor winnowing fan’, the Ashmolean in Oxford dismissed it as a ‘child’s toy spade: Victorian’ and another museum director suggested that it was ‘very probably a peat-cutter’s spade, no older than Medieval’.
The birth of the Bronze Age
Alan says he knew instinctively that it was something far more ancient and important and he bided his time. Come 1991, a more receptive Manchester Museum – or more specifically a more receptive Keeper of Archaeology in the form of John Prag – agreed to examine the object in detail. John was intrigued by the spade’s similarity to implements from prehistoric mines in Ireland, and decided that a sample should be sent for carbon-dating. The entry in the museum’s accessions register now says it all: ‘1991.85. Wooden spade probably oak, from excavations at Alderley Edge 1875: presented by Alan Garner … thought by Boyd Dawkins to be Bronze Age; dating confirmed May 1993 by radio-carbon dating to 1888-1677 cal. BC’.
With this find, what were thought to be relatively modern mines took on a new significance. Word got round and Current Archaeology (CA 137) was among those who reported that Alderley Edge might be the site of some of the earliest metal prospecting and metallurgical experiments in Europe. The shovel had been found amongst a group of hammer stones, large and heavy axe-shaped cobble stones, with a deep groove around the girth pecked out to provide a seat for a thong attached to a wooden handle. Similar stones have been found at prehistoric mining sites in Anglesey, Ireland, the Channel Islands, France and Portugal and as far away as pre-Columbian Chile. On Alderley Edge, they were numerous enough to be used as doorstops in the cottages and farms of the area. Perhaps these too were of Bronze-Age date.
One more discovery finally galvanised archaeological interest in the mines of Alderley Edge. In 1995, the Derbyshire Caving Club, having obtained permission from the National Trust to re-open some of the mines, found a hoard of Roman coins of AD 330-340 in the top of a shaft that had been assumed to be relatively recent. At this point, the National Trust and the Manchester Museum realised that they needed to find out more about this special landscape, and so it was that the Alderley Edge Landscape Project (AELP) was born.
Detailed schemes of work and downloadable resources are available in the Learning Section of the Alderley Edge website suitable for Key Stage 2 and Key Stage 3 English, Geography and History, based on the unique combination Alan Garner’s prize-winning fiction and resources drawn from the research findings of the Alderley Edge Landscape Project.
The Blackden Trust
The Trust is the guardian of a parcel of land that has been occupied for more than 10,000 years, most recently by Alan and Griselda Garner. It is dedicated to exploring the archaeology, history and material culture of the surrounding area. Regular events include training excavations, lectures, courses and school visits. www.theblackdentrust.org.uk
Visiting the mines
The mines of Alderley Edge are leased by the National Trust to the Derbyshire Caving Club which maintains access and continues to explore the mines, with regular public tours. www.derbyscc.org.uk/alderley/index.html
- The Archaeology of Alderley Edge, by Simon Timberlake and A J N W Prag (2005, BAR 396)
- Approach to the Edge: a personal view, by Alan Garner (1998, Manchester Museum)
- The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, by Alan Garner (first published in 1960
An extended version of this article can be found in Issue 238 (January 2010) of Current Archaeology.